The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a movie that will appeal to teenage girls forever. Please don’t think this is an insult—in fact, it’s a compliment of the highest order, and I think Jacques Demy would have agreed. Cherbourg is an ultra-colorful, romantic musical drama in which young, beautiful Catherine Deneuve, as Genevieve, works in her mother’s umbrella shop in the French city of Cherbourg, and falls in love with handsome young mechanic Guy (Nina Castelnuovo). Unfortunately, their love is not meant to be, and when Guy is sent away to fight in Algeria, things change for the couple forever. The songs, the colors, the fashion, the romance: this is what cinematic fantasies are made of.
Cherbourg is an impressive, outlandish achievement. In 1964, Demy only had two films under his belt, both black and white dramas about beautifully troubled, rambling women (Lola and Bay of Angels). His first color film, then, was an all-singing, pastel-colored confection starring a 21-year-old relative unknown: Deneuve. At the time, the French cinematic landscape was being dominated by Godard, Truffaut, and their peers; in the midst of the New Wave, Demy brought an unabashedly old-fashioned singing romance to the screen. As with many of Demy’s films, it’s strongly influenced by his childhood and the movies he loved as a young man.
Deneuve’s bright face lights up the screen with pure, sweet love whenever she gazes upon Guy, and it’s enough to make anyone smile. West Side Story had, a few years earlier, brought singing tough guys back to the screen, and Guy as a singing mechanic-soldier seems completely credible. If audiences were at first unsure of an all-singing picture, the skepticism didn’t last long: Umbrellas won the Palme d’Or at the 1964 Cannes Film Festival, and it remains a treasure of world cinema for its beauty and its sadness, its romance and its tragedy, its songs and its dances.
Is it a musical? Is it an opera? The Umbrellas of Cherbourg defies definition as it flirts with brightly-colored convention at every turn. Compared to the French New Wave features of the same era, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a throwback to a simpler time in French cinema—the backdrop of the Algerian War, however, remind us that not everything in France was as candy colored as Genevieve’s umbrellas.